The Tragic History of RC Cola

Chloe Effron
Chloe Effron

Who drinks RC Cola, anyway?

It’s a question Coke and Pepsi drinkers have been asking for decades. In the prolonged marketing battle that began in the '70s and saw the beloved major brands duke it out via celebrity endorsements, rewards promotions (Pepsi Stuff, anyone?), an onslaught of advertisements, and even a race into space, RC Cola remained on the sidelines, a quiet blue and red can that seemed content to simply be.

Fact is, RC has had loyal fans throughout its more than 100-year history. Its roots go deep in the south, where drinking one with a Moon Pie is a blue-collar tradition that’s still popular today. There’s even a song that celebrates the pairing. RC also has a presence internationally, in countries such as Estonia, Thailand, and Iceland. It’s currently one of the top-selling soda brands in the Philippines.

But the number of RC drinkers could have been much, much higher. In an alternate—and completely plausible—universe, it would have given Coke and Pepsi a run for their money. At one point, it did. Believe it or not, Royal Crown Cola used to be one of the most innovative companies in the beverage industry. It came out with the first canned soda, the first caffeine-free soda, and the first 16-ounce soda. It was the first to take diet cola mainstream, and the first to stage nationwide taste tests.

Given its long and pioneering history, RC deserved to be more than the middling soda brand it is today. In an industry that lives and dies by marketing, RC didn’t do nearly enough. But its failure wasn’t just due to lack of initiative. It was also a case of supremely bad luck, bad judgment, and a fateful ingredient known as cyclamate.

Like its main rival, Coca-Cola, RC Cola also started in Georgia, in the town of Columbus. It was a disagreement with Coca-Cola, in fact, that led a man named Claud Hatcher to develop what would become the Royal Crown Cola Company. Hatcher was a pharmacist and a grocery wholesaler who, along with his father, ran the Hatcher Grocery Company. In the early 1900s, the Hatchers sold a lot of Coca-Cola to their customers—so much, that Claud felt he was entitled to a discount or some sort of commission acknowledging his contribution to the company. The local Coke representative, however, denied the request, knowing full well Coke was the most popular soda in the country and not one to be pushed around by its customers. Frustrated, Hatcher told the representative he’d purchased his last case of Coca-Cola, and vowed to develop his own brand.

After months spent tinkering in the basement of Hatcher Grocery, Claud came up with Royal Crown Ginger Ale, an effervescent alternative to Coke’s caramel-colored (and formerly cocaine-laced) bestseller. The drink, with its regal-sounding name, proved quite popular, and soon Hatcher and his father ditched the grocery gig to become full-time soda bottlers. Claud’s next development was Chero-Cola, a cherry-flavored cola that would grow the company into a legitimate soda maker and, inevitably, put him in direct competition with the brand he used to sell.

In the early 1900s, like today, Coca-Cola was far and away the most profitable soda company in the United States. And with that success came numerous imitators eager to cash in on the market it had created. According to Tristan Donovan, author of Fizz: How Soda Shook Up the World, these included knockoffs like Candy-Cola, Kos-Kola, and Coke-Ola. There was even a cola called Klu Ko Kolo, made to attract those suddenly interested in the Ku Klux Klan after the group was featured in D.W. Griffith’s 1915 movie The Birth of a Nation. Coke was hardly amused. To maintain its dominance in the industry, the company began suing these imitators for trademark infringement. Over the next three decades, Coca-Cola sued more than 500 copycat manufacturers, according to Donovan, and won more often than not.

Caught in the crosshairs were Claud Hatcher and Chero-Cola, which Coke argued could not use the term “cola” in its name. Hatcher fought the lawsuit, and continued to fight it for several years while simultaneously building Chero-Cola’s distribution to more than 700 franchise bottlers. His soda was no mere imitator, Hatcher would claim time and again, and he would not be bullied out of business.

In 1923, a judge ruled in Coca-Cola’s favor, saying that Chero-Cola was in violation of Coke’s trademark. That meant Hatcher had to drop “cola” from his company’s name, thereby costing him valuable brand recognition. A drink called “Chero” just didn’t sound the same, and sure enough, Chero sales slipped. After a few years Hatcher changed the company’s name to that of his most popular fruit drink, Nehi (pronounced “knee-high”).

The Great Depression put a dent in Nehi’s sales, just as it did for other soda companies. To make matters worse, Claud Hatcher died in 1933, leaving Nehi in the hands of its sales director, H.R. Mott. What looked to be a disaster, though, turned out to be just the opportunity the company needed. Mott was a shrewd businessman. Immediately after taking over, he jettisoned poor-performing drinks and focused the company’s efforts on top sellers. He also re-introduced Chero-Cola without the cherry flavoring, and under a new name—one that, after two turbulent decades, harkened back to the company’s beginnings. In 1934, Nehi came out with Royal Crown, and over the next several years its sales increased tenfold.

A 1943 ad featuring Rita Hayworth. Jose Roitberg via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The middle of the 20th century brought one win after another for Nehi. In 1944, the courts ruled that Coke did not, in fact, own the word “cola,” thus allowing Royal Crown to become Royal Crown Cola, or RC Cola. With nationwide distribution and sales on the up and up, Nehi shoveled money into print and television ads featuring stars like Bing Crosby, Joan Crawford, Shirley Temple, and Lucille Ball. “You Bet RC Tastes Best!” magazine ads crowed. And this wasn’t just an empty boast: Nehi had staged public taste tests across the country pitting RC against competitors Coke and Pepsi, and declared itself the winner. It was the first time a beverage company had ever done such a promotion. Whether or not the tests were rigged in some way is up for debate; what mattered was that people believed them.

Slowly, steadily, RC muscled its way into soda fountains and onto grocery store shelves. To stay top-of-mind with consumers, it continued to innovate. In 1954, it became the first company to nationally distribute soda in aluminum cans. Shortly after, it began selling soda in 16-ounce bottles as an alternative size for thirsty fans. In 1959, Nehi changed its name to match its bestselling product, becoming the Royal Crown Cola Company.

But while Royal Crown had made significant progress, it would continue to trail Coke and Pepsi so long as it continued to sell a similar product. What it needed was something new. What it needed was a game changer.

In 1952, the founder of a sanitarium in Williamsburg, Brooklyn named Hyman Kirsch invented a sugar-free soda called No-Cal. Available in ginger ale and black cherry, No-Cal was made specifically for patients in Kirsch's sanitarium who were either diabetic or suffering from heart ailments. Kirsch quickly discovered that his drink had a much wider appeal, and along with his son began making other flavors, like chocolate, root beer, and cherry. The two sold No-Cal to local stores and quickly built up a distribution network that extended throughout New York and the northeast. Since Kirsch wasn’t a businessman, however, he struggled to expand beyond the regional market. He also continued marketing No-Cal mainly toward diabetic customers, further limiting his reach.

Kirsch’s success caught the eye of the Royal Crown Cola Company. In the mid '50s, it began secretly developing its own diet soft drink—one that would appeal not just to diabetics, but to an entire nation of increasingly calorie-conscious consumers. While other food and beverage companies continued to push everything sweet, salty, and delicious, RC recognized a budding demand for healthier choices.

After a few years RC came out with Diet Rite, a drink that the company believed would be the breakthrough it so desperately needed. Test markets had emphatically confirmed its appeal. One, in South Carolina, saw supermarket managers clamoring for the product. “In Greenville, S.C., where we had been running a poor third behind Coke and Pepsi, we actually had grocery store managers getting into their cars and chasing down RC trucks to get Diet Rite on their shelves,” one RC rep noted.

What could cause such a reaction? It wasn’t just that Diet Rite was nearly calorie-free—it’s that it was nearly calorie-free and tasted strikingly similar to the real thing. The key ingredient—the one Kirsch had first used in No-Cal—was an alternative sweetener called cyclamate that was 30 times sweeter than sugar. First developed by a student at the University of Illinois in 1937, it was initially sold as a tabletop sweetener. In 1958, the Food and Drug Administration gave full approval, paving the way for its use as a mass-market ingredient. The timing couldn’t have been better for Royal Crown.

In a particularly shrewd bit of marketing, the company made sure to sell Diet Rite just like real cola: In the same slender bottles for a nickel each, or as a six pack. It also made sure to put the word “cola” on its labels. Consumers wanted something different, RC executives figured, but not too different.

When Diet Rite hit shelves in 1962, it was a smashing success. Within a year and a half of its release, it had rocketed up to number four on the sales chart, behind Coke, Pepsi, and regular RC Cola. America, it turned out, was ready for what had for years seemed oxymoronic: a healthy soda. The rest of the industry was in something close to a state of shock. “So stunning was Diet-Rite Cola’s impact on the soft drink market in the early 1960s,” reported Georgia Trend, “that its acceptance could be compared to the beginnings of mighty Coca-Cola itself some 75 years earlier.”

A 1967 ad featuring ballet dancer Tanya Morgan. Mid-Century Pretty via Flickr // CC BY NC-2.0

Coke and Pepsi were caught completely off guard. Not only had they not anticipated the mainstream appeal of diet soda, they didn’t even have anything in the pipeline. Within a year, Coke would scramble to release TaB, which it also sweetened with cyclamate. Pepsi responded with Patio Cola, a diet soda aimed at women that also contained cyclamate, and which it would soon rebrand as Diet Pepsi. There were, predictably, numerous other fast followers to the market, including long-forgotten brands like LoLo, Coolo-Coolo, and Bubble-Up. In 1965, Coke came out with a citrus-flavored diet soda called Fresca.

None of them, however, could catch Diet Rite, which continued to build market share for Royal Crown Cola.

“RC had the dominant diet cola brand, and that was a very big deal,” Tristan Donovan tells mental_floss. “For RC, there was this sense of, ‘finally, we’ve broken through.’”

By the late '60s, Royal Crown owned 10 percent of the soda market. That was far from dominating, but it was still a very respectable figure, and the company was poised for further growth. By all accounts, the company that started in the basement of a small town grocery store was positioned to become a major player in the soda industry.

The rise of diet soda may have delighted soft drink manufacturers and American consumers, but it downright frightened the sugar industry. After decades of pumping its signature product into sodas, here was a comparable beverage that did away with sugar entirely. What if diet sodas continued to grow? What if all sodas became diet sodas? Ever resourceful, the industry searched for legal channels to undermine diet drinks.

In the mid-'60s, it began: the slow trickle of studies suggesting that cyclamate was hazardous. In 1964, a study linked cyclamate to cancer in animals, and raised the possibility that it could have adverse effects on humans. But the authors stopped short of linking the sweetener to specific conditions like cancer or birth defects. Royal Crown president W.H. Glenn dismissed the study as “nothing derogatory,” and other manufacturers echoed that sentiment. As the decade wore on, however, studies made more specific claims. In 1969, the decisive blow against cyclamate came in the form of two studies. One claimed that chicken eggs injected with cyclamate resulted in deformed chicks, while another found that rats given doses of cyclamate showed an increased risk of developing bladder tumors. The studies’ findings, splashed across newspapers and television screens nationwide, implicated cyclamate as a very dangerous ingredient.

“Everyone began saying, ‘Oh my god, diet soda’s going to give you cancer!’” Donovan says. “The market collapsed almost instantly.”

The FDA, meanwhile, had no choice but to remove its "generally recognized as safe" (GRAS) classification for cyclamate. The diet soda industry went into a tailspin, plummeting from 20 percent of the market to less than 3 percent. Manufacturers frantically reformulated their drinks and tried to reassure consumers, all to no avail. Overnight, the diet soda craze had come to a standstill.

The downturn hit Royal Crown particularly hard. Diet Rite had been its star performer, the one advantage it had over Coke and Pepsi. Without it, all the company had was the nation’s third favorite cola, which on its own wasn’t going to gain any ground on its rivals. After a few weeks, the company re-released Diet Rite, this time sweetened with saccharine. But the taste—saccharine has a notoriously metallic tinge to it—wasn’t the same, and many people weren’t ready to come back to diet drinks anyway. Eventually, Coke and Pepsi re-entered the market with better formulas and marketing, and once again, Royal Crown Cola had merely served as the guinea pig for its competitors.

According to Donovan, the cyclamate backlash was the direct result of the sugar industry’s meddling. That lobby, he said, provided $600,000 in funding for the studies that doomed cyclamate, both of which are now seen as controversial because they involved exposing animals to much higher levels of the ingredient than any Diet Rite or TaB drinker could ever possibly imbibe. To get the same amount of cyclamate as the rats in one of the studies, for instance, you’d have to drink more than 500 diet drinks a day. Today, cyclamate is widely used as a sweetener in countries like Australia, South Africa, and throughout the European Union. Scientists around the world say it's safe for consumption, yet the results of the 1969 studies still linger. The United States, Japan, and 45 other countries have upheld their ban on the additive.

How could such dubious results be admissible? Donovan pointed to a legal loophole called the Delaney Clause, an amendment to the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938 established by a senator named James Delaney, who investigated insecticides and carcinogens in the food industry in the late '50s. The clause required the FDA to ban any additive found to “induce cancer in man, or, after tests, found to induce cancer in animals.” As well-meaning as the Delaney Clause was, it didn’t outline restrictions on the amount of a certain ingredient that could be tested. No matter if it was a granule or a gallon, if it proved hazardous to human or animal health, the ingredient had to be pulled.

“The Delaney Clause was a very well-intentioned but poorly thought-out law,” Donovan says.

As unfortunate as Royal Crown’s luck was, its response in the years that followed didn’t help matters. Vowing to never again put so many resources behind a single product, the company began to diversify. It bought two fruit juice manufacturers, Texsun and Adams Packing. Then it took the truly bizarre step of purchasing seven home furnishing companies. What, exactly, the soda maker saw in that industry is unclear, but it must have been pretty compelling: By the mid-'70s, nearly a quarter of Royal Crown Cola’s business was tied up in making mirrors, picture frames, floor tiles, and cabinets.

The downhill slide accelerated. In 1976, Royal Crown bought the fast-food chain Arby’s. That acquisition, at least, made some sense, as it would give the company an outlet for its fountain sodas. But Royal Crown mismanaged the chain, introducing burgers and other conventional fast-food fare to a company that had made its name with roast beef sandwiches. In 1984, Victor Posner, a billionaire businessman who specialized in corporate takeovers, acquired Royal Crown, which by this time had dropped the “cola” in its name to become Royal Crown Companies. In the nine years Posner owned Royal Crown, he slashed the company’s marketing budget and battled executives over the company’s direction. In 1987, the government convicted him on tax evasion charges, and soon after investigated him for insider trading.

While Royal Crown was busy cutting costs and making lampshades, Coca-Cola and Pepsi were dumping millions into an unprecedented marketing arms race. Beginning in the mid-'70s, the two began one-upping each other with taste tests, rewards programs, TV ads, new products, and numerous other promotions. Pepsi unveiled Pepsi Stuff; Coke countered with Coke Rewards. Coke put Bill Cosby in its ads; Pepsi answered with the King of Pop. In 1985, after it found out that Coke was putting a specially engineered Coke can aboard the Challenger space shuttle, Pepsi quickly rigged up its own can and pressured NASA into letting it onboard. Neither can worked the way it was supposed to, and the astronauts complained about the gimmick. But no matter: The two companies had been to outer space.

From the consumer perspective, the cola wars looked to be two giants bent on destroying each other. The reality, though, was that both of them benefited from the exposure.

“The cola wars took sales away from any brands that weren’t Coca-Cola and Pepsi,” Donovan says. “At this point, nobody is even thinking about RC because they’re not in this race.”

With its limited ad budget, RC came out with some standard-issue TV spots showing people chugging from a bottle before pausing to smile at the camera. There were even some mildly amusing ads, including one in which prisoners “sentenced to a life of Coke or Pepsi” snuck cans and bottles of RC into their cells.

To most people, though, the more than 100-year-old brand was largely invisible.

An Onion headline from 1997 seemed to sum things up: "RC Cola Celebrates 10th Purchase." Through the '80s and into the '90s, Royal Crown continued to lose market share while its two main competitors gobbled it up. The company had a loyal following and national distribution, but in the eyes of a Coke-and-Pepsi nation, it was the loser, the perennial bronze medalist.

Things only got worse for RC. As the two cola giants continued to grow, they inked deals with retailers that guaranteed them ample shelf space. They offered special discounts to supermarkets and began paying slotting fees, a practice that still exists today. (If you’ve ever wondered why Coke and Pepsi dominate the soda aisle, it’s because they’re oftentimes paying for that real estate.)

"[Coke and Pepsi] started carving up the retail market and shutting RC out in the process," Donovan explains. "So not only was RC losing out on advertising, it was losing out on stores as well."

RC tried to wedge its way back into the fight. After the company got out from under Posner’s ownership, it gained a solid advertising and development budget. Its first attempt to jump-start sales came in 1995 with RC Draft, a so-called “premium” soda made with cane sugar. Unfortunately for RC, people didn’t see what was so “premium” about the drink, and within a year it was pulled from shelves. In 2000, Cadbury-Schweppes bought RC, then moved it over to its Dr. Pepper Snapple Group. In the years that followed, RC came out with a few souped-up colas—RC Edge and RC Kick—along with low-calorie options RC Ten and a re-branded Diet RC. None of the new products managed to move the dial, and today no RC product is anywhere near the best-seller charts.

So who drinks RC Cola these days? In addition to its southern fans, the brand has a presence in Chicago, where it’s served at Bears games and at pizzerias throughout the city, which often give out a free liter with orders. According to Encyclopizzeria, that arrangement began back in the '60s, when a creative local bottler got in good with local pie shops, figuring the pairing of RC and deep dish pizza would generate good vibes with customers. It did, and today many a Chicagoan has a soft spot for the underdog cola.

Aside from the Windy City, though, RC’s appeal seems tied to small town America and times gone by. “The company never shook its strictly southern, small-town image,” states the New Georgia Encyclopedia, which chronicles the state’s history. For fans of RC, that image as the overlooked, underappreciated casualty of the cola wars is just what they love about it. It’s the scrappy bargain brand—the un-hyped, unadorned alternative for true cola lovers.

Donovan, for one, believes RC’s narrative would have been much different had the cyclamate ban not happened. Diet Rite’s continued success could have given Royal Crown the confidence—not to mention the funds—needed to market more aggressively and continue innovating. Its name recognition could have grown, and its clout with restaurants and retailers along with it. Could it have joined Coke and Pepsi in the stratosphere of soda sales, or even have overtaken them?

"RC probably wouldn’t have had the resources of Coke or Pepsi," Donovan surmises, "but they could have held their own a lot better."

These days, being a top soda company isn’t something worth bragging about. The entire soft drink industry is declining, and has been for more than a decade as consumers opt for healthier choices. Over the past 20 years, sales of full-calorie soft drinks have fallen by more than 25 percent. Instead of one-upping each other, Coke and Pepsi are scrambling to stay relevant with a nation that’s rejecting their signature beverages. They’re expanding into juices and snacks, developing new zero-calorie soft drinks and dumping millions of dollars into advertising tying their brands to happiness, nostalgia, and other emotions that might transcend any worries about personal health.

Drinking less soda is surely a good thing. But for many people, there will always be something wonderful about a full-calorie, ice-cold cola. Whether it’s an everyday thing or an every-so-often treat, odds are most people will reach for a Coke or Pepsi. But if history had gone just a bit differently, they could be just as easily reaching for an RC Cola.

The Gooey History of the Fluffernutter Sandwich

bhofack2/iStock via Getty Images
bhofack2/iStock via Getty Images

Open any pantry in New England and chances are you’ll find at least one jar of Marshmallow Fluff. Not just any old marshmallow crème, but Fluff; the one manufactured by Durkee-Mower of Lynn, Massachusetts since 1920, and the preferred brand of the northeast. With its familiar red lid and classic blue label, it's long been a favorite guilty pleasure and a kitchen staple beloved throughout the region.

This gooey, spreadable, marshmallow-infused confection is used in countless recipes and found in a variety of baked goods—from whoopie pies and Rice Krispies Treats to chocolate fudge and beyond. And in the beyond lies perhaps the most treasured concoction of all: the Fluffernutter sandwich—a classic New England treat made with white bread, peanut butter, and, you guessed it, Fluff. No jelly required. Or wanted.

 

There are several claims to the origin of the sandwich. The first begins with Revolutionary War hero Paul Revere—or, not Paul exactly, but his great-great-great-grandchildren Emma and Amory Curtis of Melrose, Massachusetts. Both siblings were highly intelligent and forward-thinkers, and Amory was even accepted into MIT. But when the family couldn’t afford to send him, he founded a Boston-based company in the 1890s that specialized in soda fountain equipment.

He sold the business in 1901 and used the proceeds to buy the entire east side of Crystal Street in Melrose. Soon after he built a house and, in his basement, he created a marshmallow spread known as Snowflake Marshmallow Crème (later called SMAC), which actually predated Fluff. By the early 1910s, the Curtis Marshmallow Factory was established and Snowflake became the first commercially successful shelf-stable marshmallow crème.

Although other companies were manufacturing similar products, it was Emma who set the Curtis brand apart from the rest. She had a knack for marketing and thought up many different ways to popularize their marshmallow crème, including the creation of one-of-a-kind recipes, like sandwiches that featured nuts and marshmallow crème. She shared her culinary gems in a weekly newspaper column and radio show. By 1915, Snowflake was selling nationwide.

During World War I, when Americans were urged to sacrifice meat one day a week, Emma published a recipe for a peanut butter and marshmallow crème sandwich. She named her creation the "Liberty Sandwich," as a person could still obtain his or her daily nutrients while simultaneously supporting the wartime cause. Some have pointed to Emma’s 1918 published recipe as the earliest known example of a Fluffernutter, but the earliest recipe mental_floss can find comes from three years prior. In 1915, the confectioners trade journal Candy and Ice Cream published a list of lunch offerings that candy shops could advertise beyond hot soup. One of them was the "Mallonut Sandwich," which involved peanut butter and "marshmallow whip or mallo topping," spread on lightly toasted whole wheat bread.

 

Another origin story comes from Somerville, Massachusetts, home to entrepreneur Archibald Query. Query began making his own version of marshmallow crème and selling it door-to-door in 1917. Due to sugar shortages during World War I, his business began to fail. Query quickly sold the rights to his recipe to candy makers H. Allen Durkee and Fred Mower in 1920. The cost? A modest $500 for what would go on to become the Marshmallow Fluff empire.

Although the business partners promoted the sandwich treat early in the company’s history, the delicious snack wasn’t officially called the Fluffernutter until the 1960s, when Durkee-Mower hired a PR firm to help them market the sandwich, which resulted in a particularly catchy jingle explaining the recipe.

So who owns the bragging rights? While some anonymous candy shop owner was likely the first to actually put the two together, Emma Curtis created the early precursors and brought the concept to a national audience, and Durkee-Mower added the now-ubiquitous crème and catchy name. And the Fluffernutter has never lost its popularity.

In 2006, the Massachusetts state legislature spent a full week deliberating over whether or not the Fluffernutter should be named the official state sandwich. On one side, some argued that marshmallow crème and peanut butter added to the epidemic of childhood obesity. The history-bound fanatics that stood against them contended that the Fluffernutter was a proud culinary legacy. One state representative even proclaimed, "I’m going to fight to the death for Fluff." True dedication, but the bill has been stalled for more than a decade despite several revivals and subsequent petitions from loyal fans.

But Fluff lovers needn’t despair. There’s a National Fluffernutter Day (October 8) for hardcore fans, and the town of Somerville, Massachusetts still celebrates its Fluff pride with an annual What the Fluff? festival.

 

"Everyone feels like Fluff is part of their childhood," said self-proclaimed Fluff expert and the festival's executive director, Mimi Graney, in an interview with Boston Magazine. "Whether born in the 1940s or '50s, or '60s, or later—everyone feels nostalgic for Fluff. I think New Englanders in general have a particular fondness for it."

A Fluffernutter sandwich
bhofack2/iStock via Getty Images

Today, the Fluffernutter sandwich is as much of a part of New England cuisine as baked beans or blueberry pie. While some people live and die by the traditional combination, the sandwich now comes in all shapes and sizes, with the addition of salty and savory toppings as a favorite twist. Wheat bread is as popular as white, and many like to grill their sandwiches for a touch of bistro flair. But don't ask a New Englander to swap out their favorite brand of marshmallow crème. That’s just asking too Fluffing much.

43 Ice Cream Flavors You Won’t Believe Exist

Deagreez/iStock via Getty Images
Deagreez/iStock via Getty Images

Chocolate and vanilla are so passé. These days, ice cream shops are delving into far more adventurous flavor territory. Here are 43 of the weirdest ice cream flavors you can try today:

1. Lobster

You can get a lot of odd lobster products in New England, not least lobster-laced desserts. Ben and Bill’s Chocolate Emporium, a line of sweets shops in Maine and Massachusetts, began serving lobster ice cream as a way to prove to their customers that their ice creams were really made in-house. The butter-flavored ice cream is blended with chopped bits of cooked lobster meat. You can buy it by the bucket, and yes, they ship.

2. Potato chips and Cap'n Crunch

At Beenie’s Ice Cream in Morristown, New Jersey, you can satisfy your cravings for salty, sweet, and children’s cereal all at once. "Midnight Snack" is a flavor that combines vanilla ice cream with chocolate-covered potato chips and Cap’n Crunch pieces. Note: The shop, which is named after the owner’s dog, is very pup-friendly.

3. Almond charcoal

Activated charcoal powder on white background
trumzz/iStock via Getty Images

Little Damage in Los Angeles is an ice cream shop with a goth soul. It colors its house-made cones and ice creams with activated charcoal, resulting in flavors like Almond Charcoal and Black Roses. Mmm, tastes like darkness.

4. Squid ink

Ikasumi, or squid ink, is a sought-after ice cream flavor in Japan. If you can’t make it to Tokyo, you can make your own with wasabi sprinkles. It’s a little briny and a lot photogenic. Squid ink is becoming a hot trend in cocktails and food, though, so squid ink desserts could become a lot more common in the U.S. soon.

5. Prosciutto

Humphry Slocombe in San Francisco is known for its incredibly innovative flavors, some of which tend toward the meaty. The pink ice cream, made with the help of the local pork supplier Boccalone, sold so fast the first time it appeared on the menu in 2011 that the shop immediately decided to whip up some more for the next weekend. While it's not an everyday item, if you visit at just the right time, you might see it on the menu.

6. Absinthe

Glasses of absinthe
IngaIvanova/iStock via Getty Images

At Prague’s Absintherie Bar and Museum, you can try 60 different kinds of absinthe, and not all of them in cocktail form. The bar also serves up an ice cream made with its eponymous spirit.

7. Juniper & lemon curd

Inspired by the late American writer James Thurber, this flavor that once made its way onto Jeni’s ice cream menu was designed to taste like a martini with a twist. It’s cool juniper berry notes get a little zing from the lemon curd.

8. Yam

The purple yam Ube is a popular dessert ingredient in the Philippines and Hawaii. The tuber-flavored ice cream makes for a subtle, addictive flavor. You can buy Purple Yam ice cream at the grocery store from Magnolia, which makes a host of tropical-flavored ice creams. Oh, and it’s very Instagram-friendly. Magnolia has several scoop shops in California and can be found in specialty stores across the country.

9. Corn on the cob

Grilled Mexican corn
bhofack2/iStock via Getty Images

Since opening Max & Mina’s in Queens, New York in 1998, brothers/owners Bruce and Mark Becker have created more than 5000 one-of-a-kind ice cream flavors, many of them adapted from their grandfather’s original recipes. Daily flavor experiments mean that the menu is ever-changing, but Corn on the Cob (a summer favorite), Horseradish, Garlic, Pizza, and Jalapeño have all made the lineup.

10. Pig’s blood & koji

Blood sausage? Meet blood ice cream. Blood can be used as a substitute for eggs in recipes, and in 2014, the expert chefs at the nonprofit Nordic Food Lab developed a recipe for blood ice cream using koji, a fermented barley, instead of cocoa for flavor. But if you do have chocolate, it’s a classic pairing for pig’s blood, used in Italian desserts like sanguinaccio dolce.

11. Caribou fat

Traditionally, "eskimo ice cream," or akutaq, is made with caribou or another animal fat that’s whipped up with berries. These days, some substitute in Crisco, and it can also be made savory by mixing in ground meat instead of berries. Either way, it’s a frothy dessert that has been a favorite in Alaska for centuries. The recipes vary from family to family and place to place, so you should probably try a lot of it.

12. Mushrooms

An assortment of mushrooms in a bowl
ahirao_photoa/iStock via Getty Images

Coolhaus’s Candy Cap Mushroom ice cream has hints of maple, vanilla, and naturally, earthy mushroom. It’s made by soaking sweet Candy Cap mushrooms in the Coolhaus ice cream base to achieve a potent, foresty taste.

13. Carrot ginger

Carrot ginger ice cream is like eating a very creamy smoothie. At Sweet Action Ice Cream in Denver, it’s made with real carrot juice and fresh-grated ginger to give it a little zing. You're welcome to pretend it's part of your juice cleanse.

14. Garlic

Garlic ice cream is a must-have at the annual Garlic Festival in Gilroy, California. At The Stinking Rose, an L.A.- and San Francisco-based restaurant where the motto is "we season our garlic with food," you can top off your meal with Gilroy garlic ice cream drizzled with caramel mole sauce. Or you can make your own garlic-tastic ice cream at home.

15. Burnt sage

Woman hand holding herb bundle of dried sage smudge stick smoking
Helin Loik-Tomson/iStock via Getty Images

Morgenstern’s in New York City recently debuted Burnt Sage, an herby ice cream made with sage that has been charred over an open flame then soaked in cream. The savory delicacy is then dipped in chocolate.

16. Ranch dressing

Little Baby’s Ice Cream in Philadelphia debuted its Ranch ice cream in 2015, and it’s now on steady rotation. The ice cream base is loaded up with buttermilk, garlic, chives, and dill to give it that cool salad taste.

17. Grape nuts

New Englanders sing the praises of Grape-Nuts-laced ice cream, a regional specialty. The Grape-Nuts (a wheat and barley breakfast staple) are blended into vanilla ice cream, creating a delicious dessert you can justify as being at least somewhat fibrous. Try it at Grass Roots Creamery in Granby, Connecticut.

18. Beet greens

Freshly picked beets from the garden in an enamel tub
magpie3studio/iStock via Getty Images

The Portland-based shop Salt & Straw is turning beets into frozen treats. Previously, Salt & Straw's Los Angeles outpost used discarded beet greens to create Top of the Beet, a beet jam and beet-leaf sugar brittle flavor. In August 2017, the Portland store debuted Aquabeet, a bright pink flavor that combines locally grown beets with Aquavit, the Scandinavian-style spirit.

19. Earl Grey Sriracha

If you’re a Sriracha addict, it’s not difficult to get your favorite hot sauce onto your dessert spoon. At Glacé Ice Cream in Kansas City, they've been known to mix Sriracha with the cool bergamot of Earl Grey tea to create an ice cream that’s a perfect mix of sweet, creamy, and spicy.

20. Lox

At Max and Mina’s Ice Cream in Queens, New York, ice cream is an appropriate brunch food. Their lox flavor consists of vanilla ice cream mixed with bits of Nova smoked salmon, cream cheese, and salt for that perfect bagel-and-lox taste.

21. Cheddar cheese

Portion of Cheddar (detailed close-up shot) on vintage wooden background
HandmadePictures/iStock via Getty Images

If you’re going to eat your apple pie with ice cream and cheddar cheese, you might as well just eat it with cheddar cheese ice cream. That’s what Joy Williams, the pastry chef at Wednesday’s Pie in Denver, was thinking when she began testing out her frozen cheese dessert. She ended up using a cheddar cheese powder instead of fresh cheese to retain the smooth texture of the ice cream, but the bright orange dessert was still a huge hit. You can keep an eye out for the off-menu special on the shop’s Instagram page.

22. Miso

OddFellows Ice Cream in New York City has come up with hundreds of wacky and original flavors since it opened its first location in 2013, and they haven’t shied away from using miso, the popular Japanese soy paste. They've recently had Miso Cherry on rotation, which combines the salty, earthy flavor of miso with more traditional dessert tastes. If you want to make your own miso ice cream, most recipes suggest using white miso, a more subtle variety that pairs well with fruits, caramel, and more.

23. Goat cheese cashew caramel

Black Dog Gelato in Chicago is famous for its goat cheese-cashew-caramel ice cream, which is the only flavor on the rotating menu that you’re guaranteed to find every time you visit. The goat cheese gives it a flavor similar to a cheesecake, and the sweet-savory combo is a huge hit.

24. Port wine and fig

Why kick back with a glass of wine after a hard day's work when you can grab a cup of port wine and fig ice cream from Missouri's Glacé Artisan Ice Cream? Seems like a fair tradeoff.

25. Kale lime

A pile of fresh kale
Ockra/iStock via Getty Images

Kale lime leaf: healthy salad or delicious dessert? At Frankie & Jo’s in Seattle, it’s definitely the latter. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the shop is all vegan, and the kale-flavored ice cream—which is a specialty item—is made with coconut oil and cocoa butter rather than dairy.

26. Durian

Durian—the world's smelliest fruit, which has had its odor mistaken for a gas leak on more than one occasion—is also a key ingredient in the Snowdae at C Fruit Life, a Hong Kong-based cafe and tea shop which has opened locations in Boston, Chicago, and Portland, Oregon. The dessert is a mix of durian and mango ice cream topped with chewy mochi balls, fresh chunks of mango, and mango "bubbles" that pop in your mouth. With all of that sweet fruit, diners swear the durian flavor is downplayed.

27. Cardamon black pepper

Since 1945, Sonny's Ice Cream in Minneapolis has been churning out small batches of artisanal ice cream, gelato, and sorbet using some fascinating and exotic flavors. Among some of their most interesting varietals: Organic Cucumber Pinot Grigio, Black Licorice, and Cardamom Black Pepper.

28. Black licorice

Frost—a gelato shop with locations in New Mexico, Texas, California, Arizona, and Virginia—has been creating gelato the old-fashioned, Roman way since 2005. Part of what sets the mini-chain apart is its willingness to take chances on unique flavors, like green tea, cioccolato al perperoncino, lotus cookie, Guinness, and black licorice.

29. Goat cheese with red cherries

Fresh goat cheese on a slate
ChristianJung/iStock via Getty Images

As one of the country’s most decorated ice cream makers, Jeni Britton Bauer—proprietor of Ohio-based Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams—is constantly pushing the boundaries of unique treats, as evidenced by her lineup of innovative flavors, including Goat Cheese With Red Cherries.

30. Coconut lime jalapeno

Juneau, Alaska's Coppa prides itself on preparing an innovative menu of fresh foods daily, including a regularly rotating lineup of homemade ice cream that has a tendency to get experimental on occasion. They've used turmeric in past iterations, and have found a large fan base for their sweet-meets-sour-with-a-kick coconut cream jalapeno flavor.

31. Foie gras

A plate of foie gras
margouillatphotos/iStock via Getty Images

New York City's OddFellows takes the "odd" in its name seriously, and has become synonymous with experimental flavors. Since opening their doors in 2013, they've concocted hundreds of different kinds of the cold stuff—including a foie gras varietal.

32. Old Bay caramel

Anyone who has ever scarfed down a helping of Boardwalk fries or grew up in the Maryland area no doubt knows the distinctive taste (and smell) of Old Bay seasoning. The Charmery, a beloved ice cream shop with two Maryland locations, has an Old Bay and caramel flavored ice cream as part of their regular rotation of flavors.

33. Sriracha

Like a little heat with your ice cream? Mason's Creamery in Cleveland, Ohio has a range of unique sauces to pair with your ice cream choices, with a sweet vanilla and Sriracha sauce cream being one of the most (surprisingly) popular combos.

34. Pear and Blue Cheese

“Salty-sweet” is the preferred palette at Portland, Oregon-based Salt & Straw, where sugar and spice blend together nicely with flavors like strawberry honey balsamic strawberry with cracked pepper and pear with blue cheese, a well-balanced mix of sweet Oregon Trail Bartlett pears mixed with crumbles of Rogue Creamery's award-winning Crater Lake Blue Cheese. Yum?

35. Cheetos

Shots of crunchy cheese puffs close up
Eliza317/iStock via Getty Images

Big Gay Ice Cream started out as an experimental ice cream truck and morphed into one of New York City’s most swoon-worthy ice cream shops, where the toppings make for an inimitable indulgence. One of their most unique culinary inventions? A Cheetos-inspired cone, where vanilla and cheese ice cream is dipped in Cheetos dust.

36. Fruitcake

Fruitcake is the dessert that keeps on giving ... mostly because it seems to last forever, and a lot of them remain unopened. But at Leopold's Ice Cream in Savannah, Georgia, has been serving up a delicious version of the holiday treat for 100 years now: Their Tutti Frutti is a delightful dish of rum ice cream with candied fruit and fresh roasted Georgia pecans mixed in.

37. Horse flesh

There are two dozen attractions within Tokyo’s indoor amusement park, Namja Town, but it would be easy to spend all of your time there pondering the many out-there flavors at Ice Cream City, where raw horse flesh, cow tongue, salt, Yakisoba, octopus, and squid are among the flavors that have tickled (or strangled) visitors' taste buds.

38. Sweet avocado cayenne

A woman holds up a freshly slice avocado
olindana/iStock via Getty Images

Avocado may be one of the world's most popular superfoods, but spreading it on a piece of toast or dropping it into a salad is the way it's most often consumed. However, that's not the case at Rococo Artisan Ice Cream, a popular spot with a handful of locations in Maine. There, you'll find the green stuff churned into a deliciously soft ice cream, then given a little kick of heat with some cayenne pepper. It's a shock to the taste buds—but in a good way.

39. Ghost Pepper

“Traditional” isn’t the word you’d choose to describe any of the 100 ice cream varieties at The Ice Cream Store in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. They don’t have vanilla, they have African Vanilla or Madagascar Vanilla Bean. But things only get wilder from there, and the shop’s proprietors clearly have a penchant for the spicy stuff. In addition to their Devil's Breath Carolina Reaper Pepper Ice Cream—a bright red vanilla ice cream mixed with cinnamon and a Carolina Reaper pepper mash—there's also the classic Ghost Pepper Ice Cream, which was featured in a Ripley's Believe It or Not book in 2016. Just be warned: you'll have to sign a waiver if you plan to order either flavor.

40. Honey and roasted garlic

If our previous mention of a garlic ice cream didn't entice you, maybe this sweeter take on the frozen stuff—which features a little kick of honey—will. It's one of the many unique flavors you'll find at Denver's Sweet Action Ice Cream, which makes fresh batches of ice cream using all sorts of unexpected ingredients daily.

41. Bourbon and Corn Flake

You never know exactly which flavors will appear as part of the daily-changing lineup at San Francisco’s Humphry Slocombe, but they always make room for the signature Secret Breakfast. Made with bourbon and Corn Flakes, you’d better get there early if you want to try it; it sells out quickly and on a daily basis.

42. Fig and fresh brown turkey

Roasted turkey breast on table
ALLEKO/iStock via Getty Images

The sweet-toothed scientists at New York City’s Il Laboratorio del Gelato have never met a flavor they didn’t like—or want to turn into an ice cream. How else would one explain the popularity of their Fig & Fresh Brown Turkey gelato, a popular selection among the hundreds flavors they have created thus far. (Beet and Cucumber are just two of their other fascinating flavors.)

43. Creole tomato

The philosophy at New Orleans’ Creole Creamery is simple: “Eat ice cream. Be happy.” What’s not as easy is choosing from among their dozens of rotating ice creams, sorbets, sherbets and ices. But only the most daring of diners might want to swap out a sweet indulgence for something that sounds more like a salad, as it the case with the Creole Tomato.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER